Without one third-quarter broken play, UK running back Josh Clemons and Raymond Sanders combined for 21 carries and 103 yards — a decent yard-per-carry average of 4.9 but maybe not enough to shift the momentum of the entire game from decidedly Central Michigan to decidedly Cats.
Josh Clemons finishes his sprint toward the end zone, capping off an 87-yard run that became the best-ever for a UK freshman.
That’s why running backs coach Steve Pardue was particularly happy to have that singular third-quarter broken play.
Clemons, a true freshman in his second career game, took a handoff and ran into a wall up the middle behind the line of scrimmage. He kept his balance because the would-be Chippewas tackler didn’t wrap him up, and he saw enough of a hole to the right to maybe make something out of it.
Eighty-seven yards later, Clemons finished his sprint into the end zone. He had given UK its first lead of the game, 20-13, and that was enough to keep the Chippewas from winning their first-ever game against an SEC opponent despite a halftime lead more convincing than the 13-6 score would indicate.
The run became the longest ever for a UK freshman and the fourth-longest for a UK player of any class. No Cats rusher had run off one as long since Bernie Scruggs went 88 yards on Oct. 24, 1970.
Clemons also became the first freshman running back to record a 100-yard game since Arliss Beach ran for 108 yards against Texas-El Paso in 2002.
“That was a key run and we just needed somebody to make something happen. Low and behold, it was him,” Pardue said of Clemons’ 87-yarder. “I thought we blocked it really well up front but he kept his balance and found a hole somewhere and made it happen. That shows you he can really run. We didn’t know he had that kind of speed to beat the angle on some of the defensive backs. That turned it around for us offensively because he continued to run well, and Raymond ran well after that when he came back in.”
Clemons has had a bit of a reputation as a power runner to this point, even though he said after the game that he’s been recently clocked as running a 4.3-second 40-yard dash. But he said he sees himself as a versatile back that can run up the middle or burn the edges with his speed.
The 5-10, 210-pound back from Fayetteville, Ga., showed a glimpse of his talent in Sept. 1’s opener against Western Kentucky, if only briefly: He had 39 yards on 11 rushes, including a 14-yard touchdown run. He said he considered that game important because it gave him a chance to get some jitters out and get a preview of Division I-type speed that he’ll see for the next four years.
Kentucky quarterback Morgan Newton congratulates Josh Clemons (left) after his 87-yard touchdown run Saturday against Central Michigan.
Saturday was important, he said, because he didn’t want to take a step back.
“You always want to get better. That’s always the key,” Clemons said. “I know I got playing time last week but I have to forget about that and move on. I’m just trying to grow every day in practice, and none of that matters if that doesn’t show in the games.”
Head coach Joker Phillips has been impressed enough with Clemons in preseason camp and through the first week of game-to-game practices to put him as the second-stringer as a true freshman, but Phillips said he didn’t know if, how or when that was going to translate to games.
One third-quarter broken play showed Phillips all he needed to see.
“Unbelievable run when he broke the tackle,” Phillips said. “He showed speed. We thought he had good speed, but we didn’t know if he had that kind of speed. He has game speed.
“He missed a couple of runs also, which he’ll be the first to tell you that. That will come with experience also. But he’s a really natural, really good runner for us.”
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